Hews keeps on trucking
By being nimble and creative, Hews Company has thrived, creating custom vans and trucks in New England since 1927
By Kathryn Buxton
If you want a top-of-the-line mobile service unit for your fleet of construction vehicles, a snow plow tricked out with the latest computerized equipment or a dump truck upfitted with a telescoping hoist, there are few places in New England to turn. In fact, if you want to adapt a truck for just about any specialized industrial or commercial use, Hews Company’s office and shop in South Portland is the place to go.
The company has been upfitting vehicles – adding aftermarket, value-added equipment – for businesses throughout New England since Roland Hews, a wagon builder, moved his family from Aroostook County in 1927. Hews today operates from two locations: a 28,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in South Portland and a 7,000-square-foot shop in Bow, New Hampshire.
A third generation, Bob and Charlie Hews, grew up in the business and today run the firm their grandfather founded and father Claude Hews built into a regional powerhouse beginning in the mid-1900s.
“This business is a good challenge. It’s creative. We’re able to build something new each time. It’s learning all the time,” said Bob, president of Hews Co.
The South Portland location is the hub of the business. That is where the company headquarters are, as well as a 12-bay garage where Hews employees outfit and repair clients’ custom vehicles. There’s a paint shop and an extensive parts warehouse, as well. Hews outfits trucks for many of the transportation and construction industries’ leading operations: Shaw Brothers, R.J. Grondin and Sons, Cianbro, EJP, Chadwick-BaRoss, Milton CAT, MaineDOT and the Maine Turnpike Authority. The company also builds custom equipment for the forest products industry from papermakers to wood products manufacturers. Look close the next time you see one of Hancock Lumber’s signature red trucks heading down the Maine Turnpike to markets to the south, and you will likely be seeing the handiwork of Hews.
“We build a custom steel truck body for them that is really rugged,” said Charlie Hews, Bob’s brother and executive vice president of the company. “It’s a truck we’re really proud of.”
On a recent warm winter afternoon, the Hews facility in South Portland is gearing up for one of its busiest times: the months leading up to and including the construction and logging seasons. This is also a time when other important Hews customers in landscaping and service are getting ready for the warm spring and summer months. There are six trucks either being built or under repair in the massive garage and more projects expected to come on line in the coming days and weeks. In fact, the Hews brothers expect overall business this year to be better than it has been for a while. Still, they’re guardedly optimistic. Bob recognizes the economic recovery has been a tepid one. “Everyone’s cautious. There’s a gradual coming back, but it’s not a barnburner by any means,” he said.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on the shop floor where, in more robust times, turnaround times were between 40 to 90 days for a truck upfit depending on the size of the job and the equipment that needed to be installed. Nowadays, turnaround times can stretch to 120 days, as more suppliers’ inventories have been depleted and they, like Hews’ industrial clients, have been careful about fully reinvesting until times are more certain.
Challenging economic times are nothing new for the firm that has lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the economic boom times after World War II and numerous economic ups and downs since. Hews Company is, in many ways, built like the trucks it builds. Its foundation is strong, its workforce is nimble, and the company has been adept at rolling with the ups and downs life throws at it.
Charlie said Hews Company has seen customers’ focus shift during the past several years, as there has been a fall off in the commercial and residential construction markets (construction represents a significant segment of Hews’ business). As large-scale commercial development has slacked, there has been more competition for smaller projects. Hews has seen a corresponding shift in the equipment that contractors are looking to purchase, including Class 3 trucks upfitted with platform, small dump or plumber bodies. Many of those projects are referrals from local truck dealers that Hews has been doing business with for years. Knuckleboom cranes, that can operate within the confines of a smaller work site, also have been increasingly popular.
The firm also has sold more than 50 snowplows and sanders to state and municipal customers, although with tightening municipal budgets, Charlie expects that market to slow somewhat in the coming year.
“This is a very competitive market,” said Charlie. Still, he asserted, Hews Company has a palpable advantage. “We have allied ourselves with good suppliers, we can respond quickly and we really understand what makes road ready equipment.” In other words, they have the advantage of experience and a reputation for value and service that continues to attract new and loyal customers.
In many ways, times were not so different when Roland Hews moved with his family to Portland from Aroostook County in 1927. It was in the heady days just preceding Black Tuesday in 1929, the day the stock market crashed. Roland had planned on plying his wagon building craft in Portland, but he found that modern motor cars, not horse drawn wagons, were the vehicles of choice in Maine’s largest city. Roland was quick to see an opportunity in converting the motorcars into motorized wagons or vans. He set up shop in the basement of a three-story tenement building on Congress Street, near where the Maine Medical Center complex stands today. There, Roland stripped down early Ford trucks to their chassis and added sturdy oak frames clad with wood or rolled steel – not unlike the wagon frames Hews had built as a young man in The County.
Hews’ new business did well, despite the lean economic times, and the company built a reputation for honesty, value, ingenuity and creativity. In fact, Hews was so skilled, the company was occasionally called upon to fill unusual orders, such as specialty advertising vehicles built to look like peanuts or cameras.
Winds of war
The outbreak of World War II brought change to the business. Roland went to work building Liberty ships for the U.S. Maritime Commission at a shipyard in South Portland. His son Claude served with the U.S. Marines in the South Pacific. After the war, Roland relocated the family business to an old, unheated barn in the Westgate area of Portland. Claude joined the business in 1946, and the Hews built a 40-by-120-foot Quonset hut to house the business on St. John Street in Portland.
According to Charlie, it would be more than a decade before there was a mass producer of commercial vans and trucks like a General Motors, and that left a growing niche market for Roland and his son.
“No one was making vans for the mass market back then, you had to buy local,” said Charlie. There was no interstate highway system, and computers were not yet a part of everyday business. Transportation logistics – the science of shipping large quantities of goods and supplies across long distances – was still in its infancy. Instead, there was a lively homegrown delivery industry, and custom vehicle fabricators like Hews served that business.
At the core of the growing concern was a brisk trade in van bodies for the fast-growing, post-war economy. Their chief customers were local manufacturers and service businesses including Jordan Meats and Congdon Transportation, a firm that delivered newspapers to local drop-off locations for a small army of newsboys that delivered papers to subscribers. Whatever the business, every truck was different, and Hews found ways to custom outfit the trucks to suit each customer’s special needs. For example, Hews installed doors on the side of the Congdon Transportation vans, so delivery men could toss the newspapers from the van as they drove their route. Hews also was the first company in Maine to build and sell refrigerated van bodies. Those were popular with food manufacturers and beer distributors. Hews was also the first aftermarket dealer to build all-aluminum frame truck bodies.
For a while, Hews also sold school buses and became, according to Charlie, the largest distributor of school buses in New England. The company grew fast and at one time occupied several buildings on St. John Street and employed a staff of 30. With the company bursting at the seams, Claude made a bold move. He purchased a tract of land in a new business park on Rumery Road in South Portland and moved the firm there in 1966. The company has expanded its operations there several times.
Most recently, Hews has helped customers adapt trucks to accommodate new emissions reduction equipment required by the government on all commercial vehicles.
Keeping it in the family
Hews Company has remained in the family since it was founded. Today, a third and fourth generation of Hews family members run the company. Brothers Bob and Charlie joined the company in the early 1970s. Bob had been playing professional football for the Kansas City Chiefs after graduating from Princeton University. Charlie had been a psychology major at Bowdoin College before transferring to the University of Maine at Orono, where he graduated with a degree in business administration. Charlie calls his brother, Bob, “The Philosopher,” a fitting moniker for the individual who has led the company since 1985. If Bob is “The Philosopher,” Charlie is “The Engineer.” While he regrets not getting an engineering degree, he certainly thinks like one and he takes great pride in helping put the increasingly complex components together that go into each new truck Hews builds.
Both brothers have plenty of help from their close-knit family. Ingrid Hews, Charlie’s wife, works in purchasing; Katy Hews, Bob’s wife is marketing manager. A fourth generation has also joined the firm: Drew Hews, Charlie’s son, is manager of the Bow, New Hampshire store; and Bob’s stepdaughter Elizabeth Harrington works in the South Portland office.
The creativity that has served the business so well throughout the many changes in the industry is still evident today. Hews continues to take on each new challenge with gusto. That is, perhaps, because no matter how complex the equipment and technology becomes, the goal remains the same as it has been for the past 84 years, according to Bob: “We can build a truck body and put whatever the customer needs on it.”